Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Service without distinction
Kenneth Branagh
Chris Pine, Kevin Coster, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh
The Setup: 
Reboot of Jack Ryan series depicting how he became an agent.

I was all on board with this, because I generally enjoy these kind of espionage thrillers, and I like the character, and I liked the idea that it was going to be about how he got thrown into a big epsionage plot he wasn't ready for, and I liked that they were clearly going to make his trying to manage having a relationship a big part of it, too, and with Keira Knightley in the part, she was obviously going to have a pretty big role. And there is just enough good about it to make you wish it were better, but ultimately, sadly, it's just servicable.

We open with Chris Pine as Jack seeing 9/11 on TV. Two years later, he goes to Afghanistan, where he is shot down in a helicopter. He meets Knightley as Cathy in physical therapy, where he is also watched by Kevin Coster as Thomas Harper. Ryan wrote half a dissertation that showed great intelligence in deducting political machinations through economic data. Harper tells him to finish his dissertation, get better, and he'll have a job as a Wall Street banker, using that position to secretly inform the CIA of his findings. Ten years later, that's exactly where he is, and Cathy is his girlfriend. Oh by the way, waterboarding and rendition are given mentions here, just to show the film as aware of those issues, although they are never mentioned again.

Jack notices that some Russian accounts are hidden from his firm. He makes a delivery of the info to some agent [at Film Forum in Manhattan, we've also had shout-outs to Sorry, Wrong Number and later, Rosemary's Baby] and the guy tells him he'll be wanted in Moscow himself. He decides to go, then having to convince Cathy not to go while unable to tell her anything, and after she's found his movie ticket and knows something suspicious is going on. But he goes. Looking back now, this decision doesn't really make sense, or at least they just haven't set up his character as someone who needs to get into the action, or any good reason why he really needs to go--except to set the plot in motion. But it didn't bother me at the time.

He arrives and is met by a big driver/bodyguard, who escorts him to his room--and tries to kill him. They get into a big hand-to-hand fight, destroying the bathroom, and Jack finally kills the guy. There is an old woman maid vacuuming in the hallway, and there had been so many film references thus far I was SO sure she was going to come in and attack him a la From Russia With Love, but tragically, she doesn't. He is totally freaked, and when told to go meet his contact at the park, surprise, it's Harper. They have a nice talk, with Jack still in shock, telling Harper "You sold this as a desk job" [which, again: then why did you go to Moscow?]. Harper hands him a gun and tells him he's "operational." Jack returns to his room and finds it perfectly clean, the bathroom completely repaired, and the movie takes a nice amount of time letting his soak in the surreality of it all, not to mention taking a good amount of time out for the fact that Jack has just killed someone for the first time. So far I am completely on board with this film, and really enjoying the way its delving into the idea of a normal guy thrust into being a secret agent.

So Jack has figured out that this dude Vicktor Cheverin, financial bigwig, has been buying up a bunch of American interests, and realizes that he's going to orchestrate a terrorist attack, sell off all his stock immediately after, triggering a worldwide financial collapse that will result is widespread split ends and global combination skin. He meets Cheverin--that's Branagh [who also directed], making for a nicely slithering villain--and after some menacing small talk, they decide to have dinner, and Jack must bring his charming girlfriend. And guess what? She's at his hotel now.

He goes back, Cathy is there, and has found his gun, and wants to know what's going on. They have a short time to talk before Harper is there, and now it seems that Cathy has to go to dinner. And guess what else? They need to break into Cheverin's office, and Jack, surprise, is the guy who has to do it. They go, and Jack starts making an ass of himself by drinking too much--Cathy crucially informs us that he's "had an early start"--and he picks on her to the point that she tells him to go "take a walk." He does, and heads right across the street, to the office tower. He gets into the office and starts downloading info while Cathy is back over there talking to, and coming close to getting seduced by, Cheverin. There's a good bit where Jack has to call NYC, and his boss wants to make chit-chat while Jack has no time to waste. The ruse is discovered while he's in there, and the forces are massing while he has to slip out. He ends up on an external staircase with Harper saying things like "Stop! Duck!" and sharpshooting an assailant right behind him, and he gets to the ground, meets Cheverin, apologizes for making an ass out of himself, collects Cathy, and they make off.

And THAT is exactly where this movie slid from greatness to okayness, because you reach the end of the sequence--clearly the centerpiece of the film--and the main thought in your head is: WHY wasn't that better? Why wasn't it at least more exciting? He's got a sharpshooter picking off guys right behind him, and--that's not exciting? We're going to come back to this after the synopsis, but just to note that it is exactly here that the movie started veering off the path to excellence.

They're barely back before Cathy is taken by Cheverin, and Jack jumps into an SUV and takes off after her, leading to a car chase that is average, and by that I mean that it has a lot of blurry motion and I could barely tell what was going on. Jack finally saves Cathy by lifting something and--well, I'm not sure exactly what, because we literally could not see what he did to bring the vehicle down. They get on a big plane back to the states, where Jack figures it all out, while Cathy marvels that her boyfriend is this tactical geopolitical genius--it's a tough sell, but it's done with such straightfaced sincerity that it works, barely. Cathy also gets to supply the crucial clue, proving that she's not just there to ooh and ahh over the boys! So we go to the climax, which I won't even discuss, except to say that there's ANOTHER editing error in which we see Jack and the villain grappling outside the van with the bomb... and next thing you know, Jack is driving the van with the bomb, with the villain in the back. Hmmm, how did all that come about? Secondly, I would have thought that detonating a bomb capable a leveling lower Manhattan right next to the 130-year-old Brooklyn Bridge would danage the structure slightly, but dang it all if that thing isn't better designed than ALL of us thought! Geez-o-Pete!

So, it's too bad, because this could have been an excellent action film, all the parts were there, it has the right cast, it has a quite good script, but I think the problem is Branagh's direction. He's missing a very specific thing in his direction, and that is a certain je ne sais quois. He's too timid, too respectful, whatever it is that keeps him from really making a sequence exciting for an audience. The most obvious failure is the centerpiece tower break-in. This sequence bears comparison with the Langley break-in from the De Palma Mission: Impossible [and this is also co-written by David Koepp, who wrote that film] or the skyscraper break-in from Mission: Impossible 4, in that it is crying out for a lot of style, to really be SOLD as the big centerpiece, which means a big start, a tense middle and a big finish, and this one has none, except a particularly weak end. Frankly, I think if this sequence had been great, the film would have been a hit. Remember at the end of the skyscraper sequence in MI4 where you were like "Holy shit! That was amazing! I love this movie!" and they could have read Pinter for the rest and you'd still like it. I don't know why Paramount didn't take back control and re-edit it, because something could have been made, and they DID spend a lot of money on this movie.

Anyway, then you think back on the bathroom hand-to-hand fight, and how if it had been a Bourne film, that could have been shockingly brutal. And then the chase to catch Cathy, which has a nice emotional element, but comes to very little, and bleeds directly into the finale, and by now it's all starting to get a bit tired.

So, really too bad, because we almost got a really good spy movie with a lot of interesting personal elements, and we almost launched a new franchise that could have been really interesting and borne fruit. Maybe it'll do well enough overseas or Paramount will just be tenacious enough to shove through a sequel, but for God's sake, don't let Branagh near it. Unless you want competent and pretty good instead of amazing and unbelievable.

Should you watch it: 

It's pretty good, it could have been great.